Breaking Bad S5E15: Granite State

kyra: In the middle of Season 1 of Breaking Bad, before we know what kind of monster Walter White would become, we learned about the future he had squandered for his family: Grey Matter. He had sold his interest in the company, his “potential,” for $5000, and now it was worth billions. At the time, it seemed like a very unfortunate footnote, tragic backstory that underscored how much of a genius he was. Vince Gilligan kept the reasons for why he left the company somewhat mysterious, but we can guess that it likely had to do with a love triangle. In Season 2’s Peekabo Gretchen meets with Walt after discovering he has been lying–saying that she and Elliot have been paying for his cancer treatment. After realizing that Walt will not tell her how he’s paying for treatment/why he lied to Skyler about them paying for it, she asks him, ‘what happened to you?’ This sparks the all too familiar pride and anger within Walt, who retorts, ‘what would you know about who am!?’ He accuses Elliot and Gretchen of cutting him out, of building an empire off of Walt’s work. Gretchen is so taken aback by the sharpness of these accusations that she doesn’t know what to say. She can only utter the clincher, ‘I am so sorry for you,’ to which Walt responds, ‘fuck you.’ When we look back on this show and ask what made Walt do what he did, I think this scene should be pretty high up on the exhibit list (~33 minutes in for those with Netflix). The viewer learns later on that he checks the stock price of Grey Matter on a weekly basis for the seemingly sado-masochistic reason of wanting to know just how much money he should have. What should we make of all this? Well, I think Walt’s meth empire clearly represents the potential he gave up, and more importantly proves to him that it was his value (not Elliot’s, not Gretchen’s, not Jesse’s, or anyone else) that made each business succeed. It also shows that Walt has always been his own worst enemy. His pride continuously gets in the way of good solutions to problems by not only making him reject said solutions, but by actively working to make sure the only solution is one he comes up with and controls. Walt hates to feel indebted or controlled by anyone, be it his boss (Bogdan; Gus), partners in business (Elliot and Gretchen; Mike; Jesse), or his family (Hank; Skyler). He destroys any relationship where he doesn’t have ultimate and indomitable control, and even after months alone in the New Hampshire tundra those feelings can boil back up immediately when given the right trigger.

This was a beautiful, emotional, powerful hour of television. My heart ached when Walt offered $10,000 for a couple hours of conversation, and then tore when he called his son. Not to mention the horror Jesse experienced–knowing he is responsible for the death of a woman he loved so much he abandoned her (at Walt’s suggestion, I might add) to avoid her getting wrapped up in his dangerous drug-funded world. Buckeye, what’d you think of Granite State?

Buckeye: After that Emmys ceremony, I was at the very least heartened to watch “Granite State,” an hour of television that was actually bright by comparison. I was all the more grateful to transition from live television to the DVR upon realizing that Robert Forster, the man who embodied the best character in one of the best movies of the last twenty years, was Mr. Disappearance, the guy driving the Previa to which Walt (and Saul) would hitch to new locales, new identities, and new lives.

Well, if only Walt would leave his old identity and family life behind. As you suggest kyra, Walt, even a humbled and sickly Walt, is too prideful to completely discard all the sources of his pride—his genius, his chemistry, his money, his family—even if nobody else wants to share in the fruits of his labor openly, surreptitiously, or in the form of $100,000 packed into a crusty box of Ensure. If pride comes before the fall, then the sources of Walt’s pride influence the inevitability of his demise and stay with him after he’s been kicked to the ground. No sooner than Walt decides that he’s ready to turn himself in—after his son rejects another feeble and humiliating overture—is Walt goaded into action by the sight of Gretchen and Elliot distancing themselves from him on Charlie Rose. A true genius is never finished with his work, and Walt, fashioning himself as such, resolves that something must be done before he’s buried with Hank, Gomez, and his delusions. This is why I loved this final act reminder of Walt’s past with Grey Matter—it’s this falling out he had with his old partners that is the true genesis of his menace, as revealed last year when Walt quoted Grey Matter’s worth to Jesse uninvited. If terminal cancer sparked Walt into criminality, his thirst for revenge developed much earlier, when he cashed out (and perhaps was forced out) for five grand.

I think the strength of “Granite State” came from the dramatic differences we saw in Walt’s appearance and behavior. I’ve argued previously that there’s no discernible difference between Heisenberg and Walter White, that what’s commonly attributed to “Heisenberg” is actually Walt’s true self, which contains his own self-perception as a tortured genius whose answers, hypotheses, plans, and motivations are right and his desire for everybody to know that they are right. And despite Walt’s now-gaunt frame, his desperation was still there. His desperate need for somebody to love him, or at least recognize his ability to give him money—Flynn nipped that in the bud by retorting back that his father was a murderer rather than a family man. His inclination to put that black hat on his head—but the long, snowy way down the road wasn’t one Walt was yet ready to travel. His begging for company—Robert Forster couldn’t have been bothered to stay with him unless Walt ponied up $10,000 first, and only then for half the time that Walt requested. Even Walt’s brief moment of surrender can be read as an extension of his ego—Walt facing the music (and prison) could be the best thing for his family, provided he claims all the outstanding misdeeds as his own. But Bryan Cranston conveyed this constancy of Walter White with a sadness and quiet desperation that we haven’t yet seen from Walt (it’s the “quiet” part more than anything else), and the stunning New Hampshire landscape reinforced the current insignificance of Walt’s tarnished life—there stood a man whose mind and ego once towered over all, only to be dwarfed by the trees, mountains, and snow. There was ample room for comparisons to the Unabomber aside from Walt’s tattered flannel and brown-paper package.

kyra: And might I add, he kinda looks kinda like Vince Gilligan since he’s adopted the new spectacles. MEANINGFUL? While I agree the scenes in New Hampshire were beautifully done, part of me laments how much time they compressed into this episode. Couldn’t you have seen a bottle episode devoted to Walt’s increasing loneliness in the wilderness? What about Skyler, Flynn, and Marie coping with their new lives and Walt’s increasing infamy? Nothing from Jesse in the Nazi-compound* post-Andrea-shooting nor Todd and Lydia’s budding romance. Instead the minimal amounts we learned about the goings-on in ABQ came courtesy of Robert Forster. This is an example of how the 8-8 split format really hurts, because while you can argue that this is really an extended 16 episode season, that’s frankly bullshit. This is two mini-seasons, with 5A being Walt reaching the top of the mountain, and 5B being the plummet to the bottom. If these were both given full 13 episode treatments I think Gilligan and company would’ve had plenty to fill in. Instead, this feels like a fast-forward in time (which brings us to a couple days before the flash-forwards) necessary to get us to the finale. However, such is life.

*Speaking of this compound, I have a hard time believing that these kinds of things actually exist. What, the Nazis are hiding in a camera-watched, barbed wire laced, stronghold with no one caring? This seemed kinda stupid to me.

As for life back in Albuquerque, it sucks. But, as I just said, there really wasn’t enough shown to be worth discussing. I would like to discuss, however, the star-crossed lovers Todd and Lydia. Specifically 2 moments. For Todd, it’s when the Nazis are all watching Jesse’s confession. There comes the moment where Jesse talks about Todd as a dopey guy who shoots Andrew Sharp, and Todd grins. Two things struck me: (1) if he doesn’t care about the murder of Sharp, then why does he leave it out when recounting the robbery to his uncle in the coffee shop? (2) What the fuck is he thinking? Is he thinking, ‘that Jesse, I like him.’ Or, ‘yeah, that’s correct, I did do that!’ I called Walt a sociopath a number of episodes ago, but really, it is Todd who is clearly the sociopath. He does things because he thinks they should be done, but he doesn’t really understand why, for example, Jesse doesn’t like him anymore. He’s absolutely fucking nuts.

Then there’s Lydia’s reaction to Todd’s news he’s got the meth quality up to 92%. She’s ready to shut down the whole operation, but when she hears that number her eyes light up like a slot machine. Wow, she is a sick, sick fuck. Possibly even sicker than Todd, considering she thinks she can simply ask someone to kill people and it will be so, and she actively engages in the most absurd willful blindness to destruction I’ve ever seen. A lot of people are predicting the ricin is for Lydia. While I really want her to get her comeuppance, I don’t see why it would be her. Walt wants to gun down the Nazis to get his money back, but why would he harbor any resentment towards Lydia? The Grey Matter spot on Charlie Rose is obviously no coincidence; I think the ricin has gotta be for one of the two of them (more likely Gretchen I would think). Here’s my feeble attempt to predict the finale:

Walt goes Rambo on the Nazis, thereby saving Jesse unintentionally (Walt likely assumes Jesse is dead by now). Upon discovering Jesse his alive, Jesse pleads with him to let him live to take care of Brock. Walt shows mercy. Next he makes a bee-line to the Grey Matter household, where he poisons Gretchen. While Elliot sees her dying, having no idea what the cause is, Walt threatens to kill him too/offer to save her if he funnels money to Skyler and Flynn in a way that would give them no credit. Then with all his ‘work to be done’ accomplished, he kills himself. You can call me Nostradamus on Monday.

Buckeye: I really, really like your prediction that Walt will somehow force Gretchen and Elliot to give their wealth over to Skyler—and ricin is the more likely weapon to be used against them, because I don’t think Elliot keeps an arsenal of semi-automatics in his basement (unless he’s some Second Amendment nut). After all, Walt sees Grey Matter’s value as belonging to him, meaning it would only be fair for his family to share in the proceeds he thinks the Schwartzes have been unfairly hoarding all these years. And with such a stroke, a humiliated Walt can right at least one humiliation, one visited upon him when he left the company he helped found and had to revisit annually on trips to Gretchen and Elliot’s house, with the Whites embarrassed by their cheap clothes, and lately when he initially received Gretchen’s pity via her attempt to pay for his cancer treatment.

Like you, I do wish we had a standalone episode showcasing only Walt in hibernation in his cabin, and in fact that’s what I actually expected as I pressed “Play” on my remote. I agree that this is a function of the season splitting; there’s too little time in these eight weeks to spend even an hour with Walt alone. It’s also a function of the lateness of the story; we’re too close to the ultimate climax and denouement to not spend time with every major character whose still breathing or isn’t off to greener pastures like Saul.

Your Vince Gilligan call is an interesting one, though Walt’s look is a little more unkempt, and I don’t think anyone’s confusing Walt’s demeanor with the sheer gentility and chivalry that marks basically every one of Vince’s public appearances. Vince is a fucking sweetheart.

To circle back to your comments about Lydia, this episode kind of reinforced why I’m not a fan of her character. For someone whose supposedly raking in the cash, she comes across as the exact opposite of a shrewd business woman. She’s someone who likes to keep her hands clean, someone who thinks that if someone else pulls a trigger, she can escape liability for a bullet going through some dude’s head. But she’s so preoccupied with these ultimately futile details—like the purity of the meth—that I don’t understand how she manages to get her shit together to ship the meth to Prague, even if I do understand why she’s eager to refuse Todd’s advances.

One small detail I’d like to conclude with—did you notice Skyler was wearing all white during her deposition at the DEA office? I’d imagine this a quite purposeful costume choice for her, and obviously it’s one that suggests her innocence. Knowing of her complicity, it’s hard for me to describe Skyler as totally innocent, even though I could argue that she was a most unwitting accomplice. Do you think Skyler is going to have anything to do next week besides (potentially) inherit the Gray Matter fortune? What’s the best case end game for her?

kyra: I have absolutely no idea, but whatever it is will not be a happy ending. This ain’t a fairytale, and no one is coming out net positive from Walt’s entrance into the meth business. If we hold true to Walt’s statement that ‘everyone dies in this movie’ (read: Scarface), then I am inclined to say death is in her future. Suicide seems unlikely given she has a baby, so what could it be…perhaps another encounter between Lydia and Skyler? Lydia did want Skyler dead after all, and they had that brief but fiery encounter earlier this season. Whatever it is, in the immortal words of Bart Scott, CAN’T WAIT.

Random Observations:

kyra: What the hell is Huell up to?

kyra: netw3rk asks: Why wouldn’t the disappear guy simply kill Walt and take his money? Is it too simple to say that he just doesn’t want to kill people? Yes, this guy is a criminal who helps other criminals escape, but that doesn’t make him a murderer. Furthermore, knowing where criminal mastermind Walter White is living is a pretty valuable bargaining chip should he ever get caught.

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3 Responses to Breaking Bad S5E15: Granite State

  1. Eric says:

    check out 1-9 and 21 on this buzzfeed post:
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/robinedds/breaking-bad-easter-eggs-that-will-blow-your-mind

    I like the idea that Walt inherits something from everyone he kills.

    I disagree that Walt will be successful in killing Todd and the Nazis. I think the show will end with the Nazis/Lydia continuing to be successful. In a way that will symbolize the pseudo-hopeless war on drugs. You can kill/arrest the kingpin (Heisenberg), but that will ultimately change nothing. I think the Nazis will kill jesse.

    I agree that the reentry of Gretchen, Elliot, and Grey Matter was a perfect way to tie together the reasons behind Walt’s evolution. At the same time, I don’t think they will play a large role in the finale. It’d be weird to focus a large part of the finale around characters that have not been central to the show. Also, the idea of extorting them for Skyler’s benefit undermines your opinion (that I agree with) that no one can come out ahead from Walt’s actions. I think Grey Matter’s significance was only to spur him to return to New Mexico.

    Finally, I think the ricin will be used for Walt to kill himself. I think Skyler will be thrown in jail. Walt, in order to free Skyler will turn himself into the police. Nonetheless, he has no intention of spending the rest of his life in jail. He will take the ricin before turning himself in. The ricin takes a a couple days to kick in, therefore a few days after being thrown into jail, he will die of seemingly natural illness.

  2. Pingback: Breaking Bad S5E16: Felina | Room Eleven

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